What the World Will Become

Episode 6: The Making of a Democratic Community in an Authoritarian Landscape with Isabella Picón

August 16, 2023
What the World Will Become
Episode 6: The Making of a Democratic Community in an Authoritarian Landscape with Isabella Picón
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Join us in a captivating discussion with Venezuelan activist and political scientist Isabella Picón, as we delve into her journey – from learning to read newspapers with her grandmother to standing up against dictatorship. Have you ever wondered what it takes to foster resilience in the face of autocratic rule? Isa shares her experiences with civil resistance campaigns, the foundations of Labo Ciudadano, and her evolving understanding of how traditional politics have limitations in the rebuilding of a country wrecked by decades of oppressive rule.

Our conversation takes enlightening turns as we dissect the group’s evolution from a tactical group focused on protests to a civil society-oriented organization. Ever thought about the significance of 'embodiment' in activism? We talk about it, and how something as simple as yoga can bolster discipline and body consciousness in nonviolent protests. Furthermore, we touch upon the evolution of Labo's focus towards human rights and environmental issues, and the increasing acceptance of queer rights and feminism within the movement. We also highlight the importance of traditional songs in protests, the ongoing threats that loom over Venezuelans, and the complex endeavor of creating a democratic community in an authoritarian landscape. 

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Marie Berry:

Music playing. Welcome to what the World Will Become a podcast about the humans who dedicate their lives to building a more free and just world. My name is Marie Berry. I'm a feminist researcher and writer, and I've spent the better part of the past 20 years researching and thinking about how women experience war and its aftermath. I've done research in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Kenya, Nepal and Colombia, and I've interviewed hundreds of women whose lives have been shaped by violence. Along the way, I have been repeatedly struck by two simultaneous truths the first is that violence is devastating, leaving those who survive it with trauma and grief that can last for years and even generations. But the second is that, even in the most bleak and impossible of situations, there is often a great beauty, a way that those who suffer from violence find love, joy and resilience that can creatively forge new paths forward, paths that offer us profound hope and possibility for building a more just and free world. Music playing. My guest today is Issa Bella Piccone, a Venezuelan activist and political scientist based in Caracas, Venezuela, Issa was a central participant in the 2017 and 2019 civil resistance campaigns against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro. During this period, she co-founded Labo Ciudadano, a laboratory for social innovation that co-designs experiences of nonviolent collective action. She also claims to connect and agitate diverse groups of people in order to occupy civic space in alternative ways, Sometimes through art and singing, sometimes through cultural actions or workshops, or through conversations around human rights and non-hegemonic politics. I've been lucky to know Issa since 2018, when she attended the Second Iglis Summer Institute. Over the years, we've been able to collaborate on many different ways, including to convene activists from different movements across Latin America and the world, and across all of this, I've realized that one of Issa's superpowers is that she is a brilliant nerd. She loves to read, study and ask questions about why things worked or didn't, what alternative strategies might be possible and how, ultimately, we can work in different modalities to ensure that her country, Venezuela, becomes a place that all can thrive in again. Well, Issa, why don't you start us off by just introducing yourself?

Isa:

Yeah, I'm a Venezuelan activist and researcher, now based in Caracas, but I have lived in and started in Italy, in the United States, and more recently I did a Masters in Political Communication in London. I guess a few years ago I used to be more of an activist and now I'm a little bit more of a researcher, my research being very informed by my experience in activism and civil society organization and in political and electoral campaigns here in Venezuela, and I'm very much passionate about the intersection between institutional and social movement politics, and I've always been involved in global and multicultural systems and communities. So I'm very much about activism, multicultural and depolarizing forms of activism.

Marie Berry:

I love that and I know that you've been doing this work for a while now and I'm curious if you could tell us a little bit about what drew you in and what kind of convinced you that this work both the work that you've done as an activist, but also the work that you're now doing really as an applied researcher what catalyzed that commitment and those interests for you?

Isa:

Well, first I have to mention my grandma. My grandma taught me how to read the newspaper, and she's one of those people that she was a feminist but didn't say that she was a feminist. And she was very socially conscious but didn't say much. It just wasn't the way that she treated people that were more fortunate than she was. So I grew up with that example and then adolescence came, and with adolescence was when Chavez rose to power, when we saw Chavismo as a social movement and as a political force, sort of coming to the country, and how that shifted, how politics was practiced in Venezuela, first with political polarization and then democratic backsliding. But I was away for most of the time of the Chavez period because I was starting abroad. And then it came back and I started working in the electoral campaigns and I worked in the municipal government. So I was an activist. I was more of a consultant, a person that wanted to be involved in politics, and then people very close to me started getting arrested for doing politics and it became very personal, like this thing about politics becoming personal isn't something that necessarily happens naturally. It happens when it affects your life and even though I was interested in politics, it was more of an intellectual exercise sometimes than I have to do something now. So that was in 2016, and in 2017, the protest came Like there was a huge movement, very spontaneous, that started happening in a position to what was becoming an autocracy because yeah, it was, esmerudo officially became an autocracy in 2016, and I was starting to realize that elections alone were not going to get us out of the mess we were in. Elections and institutional politics alone were not going to rebuild. We're not going to give up proposal as strong as what Chavez proposed in his time in 1998. And I started, and then, when the protest came, I completely like immersed myself in it and we found it something like something called the Civic Laboratories, and the Civic Laboratory during the protest was about bringing people together to learn about nonviolence, to innovate, to do tactical innovation, because we realized that people were protesting all the time in the same way, sort of being more objects than subjects, you know, being objects, that sort of clash with the police, rather than people that were saying, okay, I am for this, I want human rights, I want democracy and I am practicing those rights in this way. So we found that that, and then my father got arrested, and because my father got arrested. I got involved with the human rights movement because they were the ones sort of like you know, like me denouncing my dad's arrest was much more legitimate to denounce it on the human rights under the umbrella of the human rights movement than under the umbrella of the political organizations that were seeking to legitimately topple the regime. I was way more, in a way, more secure in my plight if I did it under a human rights discourse. So that year of 2017, I started actually understanding what nonviolence was and what human rights were, are, and this is what changed my life.

Marie Berry:

This is like in 2016, when Venezuela became officially an authoritarian regime, I was looking for a solution that was beyond institutional politics, and in 2017, I found it, which was human rights and nonviolence, and I found sort of my people to do it with yeah, and you've created, you've painted such an important distinction between what's possible within the confines of the current political environment and political institutions, through elections and so forth, and then, in those moments when it's simply not possible to achieve the change that is so urgent and so essential for people's lives through those processes, it requires imagination and it requires these more alternative and creative strategies for thinking about social transformation and human rights, as you said. Can you tell us just a little bit about? You mentioned that people around you started getting arrested, right. What was it like? Who were these people? What were they doing? What was it like to live in an environment especially after Maduro came to power and this some of the allure of the Shavista and rain became this deeply authoritarian structure of governance? What was it like to live in Caracas as you were living? whenever you were there during that time.

Isa:

So in 2016, the oil prices went down like in late 2014, 2015. So you would start seeing like big lines for food and inflation started becoming hyperinflation. So you could see a big social deterioration in the country and the opposition started doing an initiative called the Recall Referendum, which is do a big election to decide whether we want the president to continue or not. And my boss I worked in the municipal government and my boss he belonged to a political party. I was not in a political party but he did. And one of those weekends they were doing a big signature drive and he went on his car from Caracas to a very, to a city that was six hours from Caracas, and he got arrested and he got released about four months later. But yeah, that was my, I had been working for him for three years and it was him and he was another friend of mine that also worked with me in the municipality and yeah, and then they eventually they kind of cancelled like the government cancelled the drive for the referendum initiative and I was like there was no institutional way of of making a change. And eventually that's what like the protest sort of start and the position of the opposition that there was no other way but to do a protest and to seek a change. That was not through negotiation but through, like you know, sort of like a rupture in the regime and to the decision of the opposition. To seek a rupture in the regime through protest came as a result of 2016 and how their repression increases in 2016. But yeah, it was a combination of like social of heave all and social and economic unrest, with just the institutional windows and doors completely closing.

Marie Berry:

Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, that makes a ton of sense. So as you became more and more involved in this opposition movement, which became really rooted in the streets and in protests, you know what were some of the successes or some of the kind of specific moments or you felt like the movement was making a difference, was actually having success.

Isa:

So when the protest started, the repression is very high from the beginning and I started feeling unsafe and we started doing this thing that we call laboratorio, the civic lab. And then I started like seeing people coming to my house and like brainstorming ideas of what to do and one day we decided that we wanted to make a banner made of currency, of bills, because we wanted to protest the devaluation of the currency and hyperinflation. So we were like you know, this protest is not only about political rights, it's also about the social unrest that people are living Like. So there was a protest going towards the center of the city and we decided to do the protest on the other side of the city and like sort of in alliance with the community and with cultural groups that were singing and that were making music, and we made over like a week. We collected bills and we made a 20 meter banner and those 20 meters was only $1. So $1 was a 20 meter banner and we did that that day and the repression on the actual March was super. That was terrible that day, but the news that day was not only about the repression but about these crazy people that had done the banner. You know, in a popular area, you know, like. So this was for me like an a ha moment. It was like wow, if you actually are, if you when you are actually creative and when you work with the community, et cetera, this is a way of channeling. You know what you want, which is we don't want hyperinflation, we want the currency that demonstrates what work is. You know that you can do work and receive something that is actually of value, that you can buy something with it, not like nothing, you know. So, yeah, we started doing that. That was a big win, and I think the big win in general of that experience is the civil society needing itself in a context of so much violence and so much violent discourse, because I mean, at the same time that you are doing nonviolence. The discourse is you should not exist, and the other one says you should not exist either, and nonviolence is not, you know, in a vacuum, it's just it's always kind of going through. You know it's like a serpent that's trying to like sneak itself in in like some creases, and so that community, made of activists people that actually were not activists, that were becoming activists is still there. You know many people have left the country. Many people are doing something else, but many are still doing human rights, are still doing activism, and they still have that memory of 2017, when civil society rose and said you know, we can do things our way, we can organize ourselves autonomously. And yeah, so I think it's a before and after moment in Venezuela and democratic history 2017. Because it was not only about protesting. It was about protesting in an organized and nonviolent way.

Marie Berry:

And it was about building an alternative right To the current political reality and to the absolutely kind of objectively horrible and impoverished conditions in which the vast majority of Venezuelans were living at the time. I think that's incredibly powerful. I'm wondering if you can tell us about some of the specific things that you did during that period of time with LABO that you know were about kind of these creative solutions and ways of building these alternative infrastructures or alternatives to the kind of current political reality and status quo, especially thinking about concrete examples that might actually inspire activists or people that are living through regimes that are not that dissimilar in many ways from the Maduro regime in other parts of the world.

Isa:

Yeah, I can say that there's something we learned. I mean, we were LABO was very tactical in 2017. We were more like, okay, let's do this in another way, et cetera. But we were not about the strategy in general or construction alternative systems. We were babies. It is, after we lose, we actually, you know, we didn't win. We, 2017 in the end. The repression, you know, absolutely was terrible and we, the opposition, didn't play their cards right, our cards right, and we lost the opportunity and LABO. But LABO became something else. That was not only about protest but about, you know, knitting civil society together, et cetera, and by but, I can say that in 2017, we did a few things. First, this ritual of meeting with each other every week, doing this open meetings, where people would go to the meetings and learn about nonviolence and then brainstorm about different things that we could do, and that's so. This ritual of like every week inviting, doing this open meetings of people that they could either be part of an organization or not that wanted to learn about nonviolence and what I wanted to innovate. So we, we sort of learned how to do that and basically, it meant that it needed some kind of moderation. It needed, you know, an open space and a safe space where people would end up meeting in groups, in specific groups, to follow certain idea, because it was a volunteer basis. So, okay, I like this idea and everyone that likes this idea goes together and they develop it and whatever happens with that idea, great. So it's just, you like, allow each initiative to gain, to develop and each person to sort of to contribute in any way they want. So that's something that worked while the protest movement was happening and I would recommend, I think that's a really good way of coming up with, you know, like tactical innovation when movements are taking place. But when the movement had already like died a little and we were sort of all back in our homes, a small group of us kept meeting and we did yoga, like. We did yoga like twice a week and it was a very good way of like regenerating ourselves and of gaining a lot of body consciousness, I think, and because I think non-violence requires a lot of conscious conscious of the body itself because you know, if you're saying that, okay, we should not be violent, but you have to be conscious of your own body and there are so many things in a protest that tell you that you know you should throw a stone or whatever. Not that I reject completely when people do that, but when you are asking people to have a certain kind of discipline, it's good to do something like yoga in a group.

Marie Berry:

Yeah, tell me a little more about that, Issa. Like in what ways did you find that the work that you were doing required a commitment to embodiment, Like a sense of your body, right? I just I know you know on our conversations a little bit about like the way in which singing and things like that came out of protest, and I'm curious if you could just talk a little more about how the body mattered, and especially for those of you in Labo who were not straight right or who were engaged, you know, who were maybe experiencing multiple and kind of layered forms of marginalization, not only from the state but from the broader society.

Isa:

Yeah, so after Labo we started meeting and someone came in the group that was a yoga teacher and she started talking a lot about the importance of the body and non-violence and we, and a lot of us, were very traumatized from what had happened, from things that that you know, violence that had occurred during the protest, or just the trauma of being you know, of the human rights violations that were happening to others, etc. So we started doing yoga twice a week and this was important because first it like as a group we kind of bonded more, but personally, in my process of like coming out and realizing that I that I was not straight, or like accepting that I think doing yoga was really important I cannot say exactly why, but like having those two or three hours a week, sort of and and like in contact with my body because I've been usually more about my mind that about my body that was really important for me. And and then then being like the movement as a body and like or like us becoming more together with the human rights, with human rights activists, because I feel what I realize is that in the human rights movement there are more queers, or at least there are more queers than there are more open queers or that are like out of the closet, as you would say, here in Venezuela. I think there are a lot of gay people in Venezuela, but maybe they're not completely out, but more of them in the human rights movement are out. So the human rights movement is usually and I think human rights movements in general are more queer and I think the acceptance that I found there and the, the diversity that I found there, as Laval became more ingrained with the human rights community, I was like, well, these are, these are definitely my people and these are people that had been seen the intersection between authoritarianism and feminism and gay rights, queer rights. These people have been seen that since the 90s, since the 80s, because that's what human rights is about. So for me personally, like doing yoga at the same time as getting to know the human rights movement and the activists there was very, completely eye-opening. Because before I guess the way I saw politics and the way I saw Venezuelan politics was like, okay, we're going through a democratic transition and we need to achieve the democratic transition, and others perhaps saw it as okay, you know, the way we're doing protests is being violent and this is detrimental, strategically detrimental towards the movement. So we need to do tactical innovation and based which. Each of us activists saw it with our own little like in a little square and then we started saying, oh no, it's like this is not only about tactical innovation, this is not only a democratic transition. This is about human rights, this is about queer rights, this is about feminism, this is about the, the environment, etc. And and yeah, you know the like 2018 was about sort of looking inside Laos and the crowd, but rights is about queer rights is about feminism.

Marie Berry:

This is about you were saying that it's not only about democratic transition, it's not only about tactical innovation.

Isa:

Yeah, how do you say? Well, like when, like the, the, the things that the, that the horses have blinders. The blinders, like each of us have had different blinders. I was about the democratic transition. Angel was about the tactical innovation. The other one was about, you know, the role of the housewives in the protest movement. So like finding a way that the housewives could, but each of us had their own blinders, our own little focus, and then, in 2018, we sort of started realizing the different layers that united all of that. What were those?

Marie Berry:

layers.

Isa:

Well, those layers were, I mean this thing about, I mean what? What human rights gives you, which is different layers, which is the you know, the environment, like queer rights, human rights, like democracy in general, and how. It's not only about, you know, we're not only fighting authoritarianism. We need, we also need, like some, some kind of democratic structures that are internal. So we started realizing that that within our movement there were also very, you know, authoritarian tendencies, initiatives, etc. So how could we, you know, manage that internally and how could we change that internally? And, yeah, each of us have had our own blinders and by like understanding what the layers were of what we wanted to do, we kind of realized that I would a bit more like the purpose and the long-term purpose of what Laos wanted to do. And this allowed us to make alliances with like emergent movements that a lot of them have come from the left, like feminist movements that usually that used to be shavistas but sort of are now against Maduro and they're kind of politically against everything but for human women's rights in general. And we, we, we, we have formed important alliances with them as well with with other, with environmental organizations, etc. So this, this allows us to have like a more transversal view of what politics is about, and not only you know.

Marie Berry:

We want a democratic transition, yes, but this democracy needs to have this, I mean what you're speaking about, is so important and I think is something that characterizes so many movements today, which is that oftentimes we come to the movements with our own particular interests or focuses. Right, we are interested in women's advancement, we're interested in queer rights, we're interested in the environment. We are, we are invested in, you know, thinking, thinking about how to advance racial justice. Right, and we see these causes, at least in the day-to-day operations of of our movements, sometimes as distinct, but the reality, of course, is that they're deeply linked and and they share a root in the same structures that are causing gender discrimination and racial discrimination and queer discrimination and the destruction of the environment. At the same time, right, and I think just having this recognition that that that movements are strongest when we can really see the deep interdependence and interconnection of everybody's, of the root, the roots of everybody's respective struggles, I think what you, what you just articulated there is is, is incredibly powerful and important in thinking about how, actually, in the praxis of organizing, it's so essential to again remove the blinders, to think about where the shared synergy is, because it's in that shared work that movements gain their power.

Isa:

And the the challenging thing is that it takes time to learn that each movement has their own learning experience and each activist has their own learning experience and the process by each by which they start removing the blinders, and it requires and and politics sometimes is more you know once things quickly and understandably, obviously, because we, we need really we really need these changes urgently. So there's a balance between you know the the learning process of movements and what we can actually achieve right now. I guess.

Marie Berry:

Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the specific activities or innovations or work that you did with Labo, some of the some of the innovations or the work that you're most kind of proud of or that you found to be effective?

Isa:

So in after we sort of became more of a community in 2018, when the, when the new movement or or sort of like a new wave or a new prototype came in January 2019, we were way more integrated and way more clear about our role in that, so that internal work sort of pays off. And we, when when Guaidó calls to the streets to say you know, we, we are the National Assembly, the 2018 election was a fraud, we are now the, we are gonna organize interim government, and we were not necessarily very pro Guaidó, but we were pro democracies for sure. So we started doing this chance kind of in support of the movement but critical of the alliance with Trump. So it said one of them was no somos Putin, we are not Putin. No somos Trump, we are not Trump. We are united against the oppressor. Somos el pueblo unido contra el opresor. No somos Putin, no somos Trump. Somos el pueblo unido contra el opresor. So those kinds of chans and many of them were taken more like from leftist Argentinian, like more peronist, even songs and kind of, you know, like the tradition that comes from the Southern Cone that, through workers' movements, has traveled to Venezuela and those worker movements are now in the opposition and we learn it through them. So we just changed the lyrics Because we have in Lavo people that are in theater and that know how to do music I'm not one of them, for sure, but I chanted them. So those kinds of depolarizing chans that we explore because we need new contents, we need things that are new, that are not just about depolarizing Maduro. So that was important. And then this dialogue initially is that we called víraz despolarizadas depolarized beers and through those initiatives we brought people together from that were basically former chavistas or even current chavistas, and we talked about issues that were controversial. Sort of, for example, dialogue like so there was a proposal in 2019 to do a negotiation with the regime to do, like they called it, the acuerdo eléctrico, the agreement for the electricity. So they were going to someone, was going to a big bank, was going to give a loan to do some changes in terms of electricity so that there is more electricity, and both parts were completely against it. But this is what we call like a partial agreement. So part of the civil society was like we should achieve this partial agreement so that for the possibility of eventually like a more integral agreement for Venezuelan democracy. And this was not achieved, but we brought these two parts together to talk about it. So, and this, the same was with Over beer. Yeah, over beer, over beer. So it was like kind of trying to have a relaxed atmosphere to talk about issues.

Marie Berry:

I love that, and I think it also just reaffirms the need for human dialogue and connection in these exceedingly polarized contexts.

Isa:

Right, yeah, and you cannot ignore that it is a polarized context. But if you don't build certain relationships and these people at least don't know each other face by face and in a little bit more of a disstander environment, then it's absolutely impossible. And this was an internal opposition Like this were all people that were from the opposition. It was not like we were bringing Shavista, an opposition together. This were people that in the opposition, that some of them agree with a negotiated agreement and others are still saying we need to depose Maduro.

Marie Berry:

So trying to bridge those create, yeah, again, to find additional sort of ways of understanding where each approach or each perspective was coming from.

Isa:

I think that's really important, yeah and it's not about convincing the other. Like this, dialogue efforts are not about convincing the other. It's about knowing where the other one is coming from Right.

Marie Berry:

Can you expand on that a little bit more? Why is that important to know where the other one's coming from?

Isa:

Okay, so this is like basic theory is like you have positions and you have needs I think it's something what positions and needs and you need to know the need of the other, but, like in an institutional, formal dialogue, no one is going to tell you what their actual need is Like. Okay, so I now I want a partial agreement with, I want the opposition to pursue a partial agreement with the Maduro's government, and I'm talking to someone that does not want a partial agreement. They want just a regime change. So that's that's the position each of us say in the media, in front of the media, on Twitter, but our positions come from a specific need that maybe you know, I don't know it comes to even psychology. You know, you know your, your, your your origins as an activist, or like some lesson you're learning in 2017 that maybe it's impossible to do a regime change. But maybe it is possible to do a regime change, but just through another strategy, I don't know. But the point is that if you, you need to put down to get the dialogue is certain needs to end up about needs and about understanding those needs, and that dialogue is not going to happen, usually from people that are in the elite because they cannot afford to talk about their needs. It's going to happen in more, maybe in medium, like medium rank activists and and and the grassroots, and not everyone can have that dialogue either. It's about temperament, it's about the moment in your life you're at, etc. And you need to understand that some people cannot do that. Not everyone has the same role in a movement, but the point is the point is that creating, creating and managing those spaces where people sort of can know, get to know each other and talk a little bit more about their needs than about their official positions regarding a conflict that I think is a role in a democracy and in any movement.

Marie Berry:

Actually, what that reminded me of is this is this, this remarkable interview that that Krista Tippett did with Francis Kisling, which, who was the director of Catholics for Choice for many years, about the, about the kind of flawed logic in some ways, around the need to find common ground when, when you're building up kind of strength in a movement, and it really it was always a really it was a powerful shift for me when I, when I, when I understood what, what Francis Kisling was saying, which is that you don't actually need to find common ground, what you need to do is have deep understanding and empathy of where the other side is coming from, and that that is actually going to strengthen your work, more than trying to say you know, you and I agree on this one thing, but we disagree on so many other things, and I think what you had just articulated about that this kind of the importance of creating space to really allow for people that are on the same side, right of the broader movement, but who may find a fissures that then can actually sort of unravel their, their solidarity and momentum because they disagree on certain things, this, this, this the importance of building space for them to really talk through those fissures in a way that centers on again their needs, as you put it, and their experiences. To me that bodes, that that has a powerful sort of it holds promise, I think, for thinking about ways to heal or to at least kind of strengthen a particular movement, despite all of the kind of many differences that that movement actors and activists inevitably have with each other, which too often can lead to the kind of dissolution or kind of fracturing of the movement itself. So thanks for sharing that.

Isa:

Yeah, about understanding a little bit the role of that each person has in the movement. Obviously you need to understand what the boundaries are. You know, like there are some things that are unacceptable, but if too many things are completely unacceptable, then then everyone is doing the same thing and so you need in a movement you need some kind of division of labor and that division of labor can be divided upon. You know the interests and needs and you just serve. The fact that a person doesn't do things exactly the way you want to do them Doesn't mean that that thing is not completely, you know, unnecessary. And we have talked in Laos a lot about aesthetics and how, when we talk about art, when we talk about art, like okay, marie, you like blue, maybe I don't like blue, this is just a visual question, this is the way it is, it's not that important. And like talking about aesthetics Can actually help build the path towards like this kind of dialogue, because Sort of everyone respects when they, when we disagree about aesthetics, you know it's like okay, fine, you know, but Talking, but when, when, when you make it about something Substantial, then suddenly disagreement is completely. You know, you know I'm terrible, you know it's, it's unacceptable.

Marie Berry:

Well, I bet that goes both ways too, because it's not just about the things like you and I can disagree about the merits of the Color blue, but you and I can also find a deep, you know, love and appreciation of beauty in something that perhaps is that you know kind of evokes awe in both of us, and and that is a all another kind of grounding place for for building and cultivating solidarity and connection.

Isa:

Exactly, exactly, exactly. So this is why you know culture and aesthetics is actually really important. Like people completely dismiss it, but but it's actually a way of, you know, bringing people together. I want to.

Marie Berry:

I want to invite you to share a little bit about something that I know about, which is about the way in which some of the people you worked with in in these protests used kind of traditional Venezuelan songs as part of the actually part of the, the kind of, again, the protest itself. Can you just describe a little bit about how that came about and how you observed or participated or saw that happening?

Isa:

Mm-hmm. Yeah, so in again. In 2017, different groups Organically organized around what they wanted to see in the protest that they were not necessarily seeing. So what you saw in the protest was a mass of people just clashing against the police forces and mostly a lot of young people Doing the heavy work, you know. But eventually you would see more Middle-aged elderly people doing their own thing and if, young people doing our own thing too. So one of these groups was Piloneras and the cantos de pilón. The I don't know the Pilon chance are traditional, a traditional Venezuelan music that that woman sing when they are, when they're doing laundry, usually like together in the in the I don't know in the town where they work, when there is water. So it says I don't know, I really don't know how to sing. I'm sorry, but it has a certain cadence that is always the same. And so a woman that is very you know, she's a, she's a singer, you know, kind of brought together other women that wanted to write lyrics and to sing etc. And, yeah, they started sort of doing their own you know, you know tactical innovation and they kind of started coming to logo because and they, you know, they they kind of merge with other forms of creative protest at the protests, the protest amazing yeah so this would give a different image, a different sound, and then the protest becomes A sensorial experience that is not only about the clash and about the violence. It's also about what you see, about what you listen, about, what you feel. There, the protest and politics is a body experience that you can make as Pleasurable as you think is possible. But guess, what we have been taught is that politics is Completely unpleasurable, right?

Marie Berry:

I think that's such a beautiful way to put it, though, that that that protest can be a Sensorial you said, an embodied experience, right, and that that also, I think, reminds us of our deep sort of shared humanity, right, that the kind of the invitation to engage in something pleasurable, the invitation to engage in something even joyful or playful, can remind us, too, of the stakes of what we're fighting for. So I want to ask you to, I want to shift gears a little bit, which is you know, you mentioned a few minutes ago that you didn't win, right, that the, the protests weren't ultimately successful in ousting Maduro and I. You know, of course, there's been, I know, many different challenges along the way, and I'm curious, and I'm interested in if you can tell us a bit about the, the ongoing situation and the threats that are currently sort of facing Venezuelans today.

Isa:

Well, first disclaimer, I came back two weeks ago. I've been doing my master's, so I'm I'm not, I'm not in any present danger myself. The I would say there are three big threats. One is authoritarianism. I mean, there was an election, there was a regional election Last December. It kind of improved a little bit in terms of, like, electoral guarantees, but electoral guarantees are not human rights. Human rights are still violated. There are still 364 political prisoners, 149 of them are workers, you know, from national enterprises or industries that have been imprisoned for organizing to ask for better working conditions, and this from a government that calls itself leftist and revolutionary. So then, and and, and I would say, authoritarianism comes also from within the opposition, the inability of the opposition to actually do politics, openly Disabled, set from actually practicing democracy internally, and this is something that we need to solve, no matter whether we change, there is a regime change or not. We need to resolve the problem of representation within the opposition because, if not, there is no Movement governance and there's not gonna be a new Movement strategy to you know, to actually achieve or or reignite the fight for democracy.

Marie Berry:

When you say within the opposition, do you mean within the kind of the protest movement or do you mean within the guaido as supporters and and and kind of like parallel Administration that has emerged.

Isa:

Yeah, there's, I mean within All the political parties, whether they are with with guaido or not, are not. I would not say that they are Democratically, you know they are. They have big democratic practices. I, this is, yeah, I, I think that's. I mean and and the. The challenge is that how do you practice democracy in In an authoritarian environment? How do you practice in general democracy in an authoritarian environment? How do you do a primary and and you know, we know, democracy is not only about elections, about you know, I want a primary but even, how do you enable you know deliberative spaces in In an environment where, if they see that you're doing those kinds of meetings, they are going to target you? So this is the challenge is to to sort of you. You need to practice sort of the electoral politics that they are allowing you so that you are also allowed to do some kind of dissident Politics actually dissident politics, because electoral politics right now doesn't have a dissident nature but you need to be able to do the dissidents too. So that is the huge challenge we have right now and in order to do that, the opposition needs to reorganize itself and if the opposition is comprised of political parties and is comprised also of big civil society organizations, the human rights movement, you know former Shavistas, you know there's. It's very, very diverse. It's huge. It's huge. It's, you know, about 80% of the country. I would say, but, and also in the I mean this, the again with the authoritarianism in 2020, but she led. Michelle Vachelette, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, said in her 2020 report, said that there were 2000 extrajudicial killings in Venezuela only in 2020. 2000 extrajudicial killings. This means, like a police, police commandos Going into popular areas and targeting people in order to do some kind of social clings Because they think this are delinquents, which is obviously I don't care if they're delinquents, you cannot do that. And also in 2019, this started because people from those areas were protesting too. So, like snitchers and you know kind of, they got informants that told when and who was protesting and then they killed them. So the cost of protesting in Venezuela and protesting in a popular area is Very, very high. Like you, you get killed. And also there's like social control through food, etc. So that's a big problem. The I say, I'd say that's a huge challenge, that that this only solved in two ways. First, like through an internal Democratic process in the opposition that involves, I don't think, only primaries, although some people talk about primaries, but about, like, deliberation and and community building and deliberation within the opposition. And Second, solidarity like solidarity networks, so that people are no longer so dependent on government, on government food and on government aid that that they give an exchange for political, for political control. The other, the other problem, the other Horrible thing we're facing is economic inequality. Like there has been a dollarization, the fact of dollarization, and an economically realization that that has made things a little bit better for for a small part of the population and but the the complex humanitarian emergency continues, and so so the challenges to, To keep sort of you cannot blame people for taking advantage and and and like Applauding in a way that things are a little bit better, but you need to also denounce that this is not the kind of development that we want. We don't want a development that is, you know, an, an economically realization that is very akin to that of Russia in the 90s.

Marie Berry:

You know that is very much mafia controls and and Just very, very Uniquely think so few people understand this the actual scale of, of the human suffering in Venezuela today. I mean, we know that since 2014,. You know, after, after Maduro came to power, six million Venezuelans have left the country. That's, that's 20 percent of the country's population. This isn't a country experiencing armed conflict like we're seeing right now in Ukraine, or in Syria or or in Yemen, right, it's a country that you know, ostensibly is actually Not experiencing armed conflict, but rather a massive, catastrophic economic crisis where you have in 8000 percent increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide just in the last eight years. I mean, I think that's the scale of that is, is, is, is, is really humbling. So I think you know, you make, you make the right point that that's that, that that is just such a huge kind of Massive threat facing so many people in Venezuela today.

Isa:

And people keep leaving because they're complex humanitarian emergency. Still, it's still happening. So they're still going by foot to Colombia, to Chile, to Peru. You know, and and even you know you. You have seen their stories of Venezuelans crossing To Mexico by a foot, by it, in you know, and passing the Rio Grande. So if, if the situation was better, this would not be happening right.

Marie Berry:

Are there any other threats that you see facing kind of Venezuela today?

Isa:

Yeah, the, the, the damage to the Amazon rainforest. They, they, they built or they created a zone called the Orinoco mining arc. So there's illegal mining going on, control, like enabled by the Venezuelan government and and controlled through through mafia syndicates that are doing illegal mining, gold mining, mostly in the in the Orinoco basin, and this is, this is doing a big. The government needs it because it's it's where they're getting their money, like all production in Venezuela has is falling down or has been falling down the past few years. And this is and this aren't like para fiscal, this is a para fiscal activity that the government is not in the books of the government. They just get that money and it's on the black, you know, and that's how they, they distributed to that to get to, to actually to maintain power.

Marie Berry:

Yeah, in in this context where, where you know this, this profoundly brave and energetic opposition emerged in 2017 and in which there was so much Momentum and and at different points in time, in 2017, 2019. We saw just the the massive, you know, engagement of so many Venezuelans in in movements to demand Democracy and better, better futures. I'm wondering how you and other activists have kept going right in the space it, in the face of these threats and these kind of very, very, both real, material threats to people's daily lives and ability to buy food or ability to, you know, pay rent, but also the kind of existential threat of of a regime that impures it appears deeply entrenched and allied with other authoritarian regimes around the world, what, what has kept you kind of able to keep going, you and other activists?

Isa:

Mm-hmm. Well, I think the first thing is actually becoming an activist. I was not an activist before 2017 and as an activist, I felt more Relevant in my life here. I felt more protected because you know you are. You can't be a target, but the cost of them doing something to you are high if you have a Community, that that kind of tests your work and an international community to an international network. So building community is indispensable. If you don't build community, if you're just on your computer, you know, recording human rights violations, well, first, you're not gonna, probably not gonna. Nothing's gonna happen to you because you're doing nothing public. But but if you need to build community, second, I think in 2017 and in 2019, we didn't achieve the, the objective of regime change, and this has. What a lot of people have done is that, while we cannot, or there isn't the moment right now to actually go, you know, to form a protest movement again, there's probably something that might happen, hopefully, or that there's gonna be a negotiation that A movement needs to support in the streets. That, my the scenario that I want is that there is an integral negotiation, that you know the whole, that you know the movement goes to the street and says we need this and we pressure the regime to actually agree to that. But a lot of activists have been fighting for LGBT causes, environmental causes Yesterday was a march for International Women's Day. So I think the movement has evolved a little bit, in the sense that we're no longer only an opposition movement, we have started to embrace progressive causes, and this we had sold also to a generational change the you know, we are in our 30s now. I mean the people that protest, I guess the, I guess the Venezuelan movement started with people that are now in their 60s, in their 70s, and they are. They're doing politics, probably as usual, but the, the people that are in the street right now and have all have values that are not only about regime change. They're also about, you know, what is the Venezuela that we want? And we are. We have realized that we need to start, that we need to start fighting and implementing those visions before the, before the, the, before the democratic transition takes place. So that's been happening and that makes me very optimistic and I think that makes activists also resilience. It builds resilience in the communities because it keeps people in the street maybe a small amount of people, and they are saying that this is. But but the core perhaps is sort of mobilized by these values.

Marie Berry:

What. So what are those values? I mean you, you, you mentioned human rights and LGBTQI rights and and and environmental rights and things like that. But if you had to think about what it would look like if you were to succeed in your work, like if you were to imagine that you succeeded in this, in this fight, what, what is the? What does the world look like for you? And what, what, what values ground you know that, that future or that vision of the future?

Isa:

I would like. I would like a Venezuela where where democracy is really not only about elections but about human rights and about the liberation and the ability to to talk to each other, that's, and where civil society is relevant and important and social movements are dynamic and civil society is dynamic. Venezuelan democracy from the 48, from 58 until 98 was good enough, but completely electoral it like it was very much, you know, by the, by the standards of what democracy was, I guess in in, in the, when it started in the 50s. But we didn't renew Venezuelan democracy and this is the big fight. The big fight of the 90s was that and we're still fighting that. So that's that's. That's the country where I want to do politics. It's a country where where politics is not only for political parties but for people, for, you know, for normal people in the street. That's that's the Venezuela that I want and I'm being I mean being myself, being bisexual, like I want a country where I can get married, where you know where I'm if I'm walking with my girlfriend holding hands, no one is going to be, like you know, saying something rude or where that is accepted, you know. And I want a Venezuela where oil well, probably oil is no longer going to be our the main thing, but where, where tourism and sustainable tourism is, like the, the source of our growth and the center of the of the service industry. We have so much to show, we have so much to. You know, it's an. It's an amazing country in terms of, and that's a way I think to, to, to become an environmentalist yourself. I think like connecting the tourism industry to caring for the environment and the and the climate that applied for, against climate change, and I think that's that's a good connection that we can make.

Marie Berry:

I think that's that's a very hopeful vision. Would you, can you share some suggestions, Issa, of any ways that people listening to this podcast can learn more or get involved or support the work that you're doing? Some concrete suggestions yes.

Isa:

Yeah, there's a very, a few very trustful organizations to donate. One of them is Action for Solidarity. They they work in HIV issues here in Venezuela and they distribute medicines in general, not only for HIV but but in general. They're probably the best established humanitarian organization here in Venezuela. So ActionForSolidarityorg, then Jaquera, is a platform to donate to specific individuals and social initiatives, and it's an innovative way to channel humanitarian aid directly to individuals, so not to an organization, but so they they. They connect with communities, they make them a profile of like it's like, it's like a GoFundMe, but they have their own GoFundMe for Venezuelans that that are, that they vet, et cetera. And the third thing I would say is to get informed. Many English sources are very much polarized between the left and the right, being either I apologize apologetic of Maduro's human rights violations or completely aligned with the traditional US policy. And so I would get on heartsonvenezuelacom. It's a solidarity campaign and also an information source, and there you can find articles in English that inform about Venezuela from a human rights and democracy perspective, and they have a lot of things about the indigenous movements, environmental movement in Venezuela, feminist movement, et cetera. So heartsonvenezuelacom, wonderful.

Marie Berry:

ESA. It's just such a joy to have a chance to talk to you. Thank you so much. And I wish you nothing but but luck, as you have returned to Caracas after several years away, and I look forward to hearing more about your work in the coming years, months and years. Thank, you.

Isa:

Thank you, marie, and thank you for the work you do and the community that you keep alive.

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The Intersection of Activism and Yoga
Dialogue for Depolarization in Venezuela
Understanding and Empathy in Movements
Traditional Songs and Challenges in Venezuela
Building Democratic Community in Venezuela
Getting Informed About Venezuela's Situation